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Biking, Swimming, Yes--Walking? No Way

March 15, 1994|SUZANNE SCHLOSBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Schlosberg, a former editor at Shape magazine, leaves April 18 for a 3,300-mile bike trip across the United States

Here is a phenomenon begging to be explained:

I will bicycle across North Dakota in a thunderstorm, I will wake up at 6 a.m. to swim a mile in the 57-degree ocean, and I will spend three hours in the gym toning my triceps, deltoids and other assorted muscles.

Under no circumstances, however, will I walk more than one block to work. Or to any place else, for that matter.

If there's no parking space within 100 yards of my Woodland Hills office, I will circle the block until a car pulls out. Or--despite threatening notices that have appeared on my windshield--I will park in the lot next door, which has a sign that says, "Private Property. All cars without permit will be towed."

Last summer, I quite enthusiastically bicycled 80 miles a day for 48 days, transporting myself from Seattle to the Jersey shore. But rather than walk five minutes from any given campground to the Dairy Queen, I would stand on a street corner for 20 minutes until I succeeded in hitching a ride. (You can do this sort of thing safely in Malta, Mont.) I did briefly halt the practice in West Virginia, after catching a lift with a professor returning from a lecture on reptiles. I didn't enjoy sharing the bed of his pickup with the leftovers from his snake's dinner: a caged trio of rodents.

In general, my life is governed by the fact that I am too lazy to walk 75 feet. Am I truly lazy? Or am I merely a product of contemporary society, which has turned the original notion of physical activity on its head?

Basically, I will engage in physical activity when it has no purpose other than to cause profuse sweating, lactic-acid burn or the transformation of my face into a large tomato. But I refuse to increase my heart rate when it will serve any practical purpose, such as getting me from my Honda to my cubicle at the office.

In search of an intelligent explanation for this behavior, I called my friend Julie, a graduate student who knows how to conjugate Latin verbs and writes papers titled, "A Comparative Analysis of a Quasi-Experimental and a Randomized Comparative Post-Test Evaluation Design."

Julie said I can't blame contemporary society; I really should blame myself. She did allow me to blame Los Angeles, where I have lived my entire 26 years.

"You live in a warped city," she said. "You were raised to believe that you should drive from your front door to your mailbox, but that you should spend at least 10 hours a day on the StairMaster. You really can't help it that you're incapable of walking three feet."

Julie, who has never spent two minutes on a StairMaster, lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., and claims that she enjoys her 35-minute walk to class. "I love it," she said. "It totally pumps me up, even when it's 20 below and mucus freezes."

Not quite satisfied with Julie's explanation, I contacted an exercise expert, Dr. Stephen Blair of the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas. In his book "Living With Exercise," Blair encourages people to incorporate exercise into their everyday lives.

Among his suggestions: Go for a two-minute walk during TV commercials and walk across the hall to speak to a colleague rather than use the phone. Blair's book is intended for sedentary types, not avid cyclists who spend 40 minutes searching for a good parking space. But Blair knew what I was talking about.

He said I shouldn't blame myself or Los Angeles for my laziness. Instead, he went with the contemporary-society theory. "In ages past," he explained, "energy expenditure was more a normal part of the day. We've just been successful in engineering it out."

Blair said the phenomenon began about 10,000 years ago, when humans domesticated plants and animals, stopped wandering across large geographical areas and settled in fertile valleys to grow crops. By the 18th Century, we congregated more and more in cities, and eventually we reached a point where we get pizza delivered and refuse to change the channel without the remote.

Blair pretty much got me off the hook. Still, I can't help but believe that there's something inherent in my personality that precludes me from exercising for any sensible purpose.

When I try to imagine myself roaming the savanna to gather roots and seeds, hunting wild game on the plains and carrying the meat back to camp, the picture is a bit fuzzy. Somehow, though, I can imagine hanging out in my cave and bench-pressing buffalo bones.

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